Phish Pranks Throughout The Years
In honor of April Fools’ Day we’ve put together a list of just some of the pranks Phish has played over the past 30-plus years. They run the gamut from a college prank war guitarist Trey Anastasio participated in to “faux” guest appearances to setlist antics.
In the spirit of Frank Zappa, humor has always had its place in Phish’s music. The quartet has used their audience as the straight man at points and other times they used their fans to prank the mainstream. There are dozens of instances of Phish pranks over the years, but today we want to shine the JamBase List light on 20 of them.
1. Trey’s Heart Prank – Circa ’84
A young Trey Anastasio engaged in a prank war with a friend in Colorado that hits its climax when Anastasio sent his friend a hand and a heart (there’s debate as to whether the heart was from a human or goat) from UVM’s anatomy lab with a note attached that read, “I’ve got to hand it to you, you’ve got heart.” The guitarist was suspended from the school for a semester which led him to attend Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, where he rekindled his friendship with lyricist Tom Marshall. After meeting up with his old friend in early 1984, Anastasio invited Marshall over for a home recording session for the material that would wind up being released as The White Tape. The two went on to form an extremely fruitful working relationship that still pays dividends 30 years later.
2. Christmas In May – 05/28/1989
If you want to hear Phish at their loosest, look no further than the band’s May 28, 1989 performance at Connie Condon’s Farm in Hebron, New York. The Vermonters provided the music at one of friend Ian McLean’s now legendary parties and didn’t hold back on enjoying the festivities. There’s plenty of drunken banter from Trey throughout including in “Contact,” where he takes numerous opportunities to shout “Merry Christmas,” more than five months after the holiday.
3. John Popper Trampoline Hijinks – 07/11/1992 & 07/27/1993
At the Holmdel, New Jersey inaugural H.O.R.D.E. tour stop on July 11, 1992; Phish invited up longtime friend John Popper of Blues Traveler during the trampoline section of “You Enjoy Myself.” A note on Phish.net explains what happened next, “On his first jump, though, Popper jumped right through the trampoline. Embarrassed, he left the stage.” A little over a year later, on July 27, 1993 in Richmond, a wheelchair-bound Popper jammed on harmonica during “YEM” from the side of the stage while an effigy of the (then) big man was lowered onto the stage. Phish had it set up that the cord lowering the effigy of Popper would snap and break right through the trampoline leading to cheers from the crowd.
4. Fun With The Radio Audience – 12/31/1992
A flyer distributed to fans at Matthews Arena on December 31, 1992
Flyers were distributed to fans attending the band’s New Year’s Show on December 31, 1992 at Matthews Arena in Boston cluing them in on a batch of new secret language signals “designed to confuse and confound the average radio listener” as a recording of the performance was to be aired the next day on Boston’s WBCN radio station. Anastasio clued fans in as to when to react by holding up signs. Some of these signals included “mass hysteria” in the middle of “Fly Famous Mockingbird,” “yay/boo” during “I Didn’t Know” and the “lip flop” for “Harpua.”
5. Phish “Fires” Mike Gordon – 02/06/1993
When Phish returned for the encore at NYC’s Roseland Ballroom on February 6, 1993 they started up a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” The band struggled with the intro leading Trey to tell the crowd they were relieving Mike Gordon of his bass duties so Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding could take over. Redding then emerged on bass, while Gordon moved over to keys. In the middle of the song Anastasio “let Popper take over” as the Blues Traveler front man came out for a harmonica solo.
6. Gene Simmons Guests At The Roxy – 02/20/1993
Fake Gene Simmons at Phish concert in Atlanta
In the middle of one of the most memorable “Mike’s Groove’s” in Phish history at The Roxy in Atlanta on February 20, 1993; the band brought out fan Jay von Lehe, who was dressed as Gene Simmons of KISS, to help sing the chorus of “Rock And Roll All Nite.”
7. Neil Young Guests In Portland – 04/01/1993
On April Fools’ Day in 1993 Phish not only headlined their own show at the Roseland Theater in Portland, OR; they also performed at a benefit for Ancient Forests. Neil Young was among the artists who played the benefit leading some fans to wonder if Phish would be able to convince Neil to guest later that night. The band played into the rumors by inserting teases of a pair of Neil Young songs at their headlining show. According to Phish.net, “After the Big Ball Jam, Trey looked offstage and introduced ‘Neil Young,’ which turned out to be [drummer Jon Fishman]. Fishman responded by singing a line of ‘After The Goldrush’ before launching into ‘Terrapin.'” In 1998 Phish finally had a real opportunity to perform with Neil Young at both Farm Aid and that year’s Bridge School Benefit Concerts.
8. Phish Teases Thriller Musical Costume – October ’95
As there were every year, there were rumors Phish would cover Michael Jackson’s Thriller as their musical costume on Halloween 1995 in Chicago. The quartet only added to the speculation by teasing “Black & White” and “Beat It” on October 21, 1995 followed by “Beat It” teases on October 27 and 29. Then, during a first set “Harpua” on Halloween, Trey said Jimmy was listening to the album Phish would cover later that night and the band started playing “Beat It.” The joke continued into the second set as the group’s performance of Quadrophenia was preceded by recorded bits of Michael Jackson songs.
9. Fans Help Record The Dog Log Album – 12/11/1995
On December 11, 1995 Trey told the crowd in Portland, Maine that the band was recording an album filled with 15 different versions of the soundcheck staple “Dog Log.” Anastasio asked fans to scream catcalls and boo them following the first short take on the tune, while on the second take he asked crowd members to let out high-pitched squeals. Twenty-one years later we’re still waiting for the Dog Log album to come out.
10. Trey Teases Bruce Springsteen Guest Appearance – 07/16/1999
For the encore of Phish’s July 16, 1999 performance at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey Trey introduced “the greatest songwriter of all time,” who like himself and keyboardist Page McConnell grew up in the area around the venue. While Anastasio was leading the audience to believe Bruce Springsteen would emerge, it was Tom Marshall who came out dressed like Springsteen to deliver vocals for a cover of The Boss’s “Born To Run.” Springsteen would go on to perform with Phish at Bonnaroo ’09.
11. Say It Like You Mean It – 01/01/2000
In yet another case of Phish screwing with the mainstream, Trey instructed the crowd at the band’s Millennium shows at Big Cypress in Florida to chant “Cheesecake” at the end of a “Heavy Things” that was broadcast on ABC in an attempt to confuse the television audience.
12. Tom Hanks Welcomes Back Phish – 12/31/2002
At Phish’s “comeback show,” held on December 31, 2002 at Madison Square Garden, a scene from the movie Cast Away was shown in advance of a performance of “Wilson.” During “Wilson,” Trey brought out the film’s star – “Tom Hanks” – to sing the final lyric. Some fans (and news outlet) believed it really was Hanks, but it was actually keyboardist Page McConnell’s brother Steve.
13. Phish Re-Starts “You Enjoy Myself” In Hampton…Again – 03/06/2009
Here’s the most controversial entry on our list as it’s not confirmed Phish was actually playing a prank on this one. When the Vermonters first played the complex “You Enjoy Myself” in Hampton, VA on January 3, 2003 just a few shows after returning from a hiatus, they struggled with the intro leading them to re-start the song. Six years later, at their first show following a five-year “breakup,” the quartet once again screwed up the start of “YEM” and re-started the tune. Was it a nod to the 2003 version or did they just mess up a tough song? Depends who you ask.
14. “Sarah From Pittsburgh” Plays Drums With Phish – 12/31/2009
For Phish’s New Year’s “gag” in Miami on December 31, 2009; drummer Jon Fishman was placed inside a cannonball and supposedly launched from a cannon. The band appeared to have lost Fish, leading Trey to ask if anyone in the audience knew how to play drums. Anastasio picked out a woman named Sarah from Pittsburgh, who told him her favorite Phish song was “Fluffhead.” At some point the actress swapped places with Fishman in drag and the band launched into “Fluffhead.” Fish went on to play the rest of the third set and encore dressed as Sarah.
15. Zepp Madness And Fun With Feat – 10/30-31/2010
Atlantic City legend Pinky Kravitz said that Phish would cover a Led Zeppelin album on Halloween in a Pinky’s Corner column that ran just before the band’s three-night stand at Boardwalk Hall in 2010. While Phish wound up covering Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus on Halloween, they did work in parts of four Led Zeppelin songs into “Tweezer” on October 30, 2010 and later “Whole Lotta Love” into “Chalk Dust.” Then, on the 31st, before Phish kicked into “Fat Man In The Bathtub” the band had some fun as described in the notes on Phish.net, “In the tradition of some of Phish’s previous crowd experiments in the early ’90s, flyers explaining a new Secret Language prank were included in the Phishbills that were passed out to fans as they walked into the show. The prank, designed to confuse those who would later listen to the recording, consisted of an announcer introducing Phish (as Little Feat). When the announcer would say a letter of the band FEAT (‘Give me an F!’), the crowd would respond with letters corresponding to PHISH (‘P-H!’).”
16. Phish Plays Harpua The Right Way In Chicago – 07/21/2013
The summer of 2013 was the peak of fans coming to Phish shows holding up signs with requests. On July 21, 2013 the quartet played into the sign phenomenon and trolled fans with a special “Harpua” featuring members of the Second City Comedy Troupe at Chicago’s Northerly Island. A member of troupe held up a sign saying “Poster Nutbag – The Right Way.” Anastasio pulled the sign-toting showgoer and his partner on stage and then a group of their friends. It turned out the audience members were from the famed comedy troupe and they went ahead and told the “Harpua” story the “right way” to groans from the crowd. While the 22-minute comedy improv-laden “Harpua” isn’t looked back on fondly by many fans, we credit Trey for playing it off nicely at the beginning as it took a while before the audience realized they’d been had and it was all pre-planned.
17. Most Shows Spell Something – 08/30/2013
Phish started two traditions on September 2, 2011: annual Labor Day weekend runs at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO and setlist antics at the first show of each run. Every song the band played that night started with the letter “S.” The first letter of every song played at the 2012 Dick’s run opening show on August 31, 2012 spelled “Fuck Your Face” leading up to a performance of the tune itself followed by a fitting “Grind,” “Meatstick” encore. Then, at 2013’s Dick’s opener the band spelled out “Most Shows Spell Something” using the first letter of each song played in reverse order.
18. Lushington Setlist Antics – 08/29/2014
Phish engaged in setlist spelling antics once again at the first night of last year’s Labor Day weekend run at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. The show came a few months after Phish fans voted obscurity “Lushington” as the “Best Phish Song” in a Rolling Stone readers poll. “Lushington” had last been performed by the Vermonters on September 2, 1987 so when the first letter of the first ten songs Phish played at the Dick’s ’14 opener spelled “LUSHINGTON,” fans thought they would finally get to hear a live performance of the rarity. Alas, Phish was just toying with fans and played “Ha Ha Ha” immediately after spelling “LUSHINGTON.”
19. Phish Thanks Fans With Epic Encore – 09/06/2015
As detailed above, Phish used the first night of their annual Labor Day weekend runs at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado to engage in setlist spelling antics. However, the opening night of the 2015 three-night stand contained no such antics. Would the quartet complete the run without continuing a tradition started in 2011? The band did indeed have fun with the setlist at the last possible opportunity, the encore of the closing night of the run. Phish wound up spelling “THANK YOU” with the setlist of the encore minus duplicates of “Harpua.” The encore included bust outs “Harpua,” “After Midnight,” “N02,” “Keyboard Army” and “Once In A Lifetime” in addition to the debut cover of Brotherhood Of Man’s “United We Stand.”
20. The Great Disappearing Act – 12/31/2015
This past New Year’s Eve, Phish started their third set at New York City’s Madison Square Garden by performing on a small stage setup near the back of the venue’s floor. The foursome began “No Men In No Man’s Land” and quickly tore through the song’s structure for an exciting stretch of improv. An hourglass-like scrim descended from the ceiling and covered the mini-stage as the band jammed away, while psychedelic images were projected onto it. The music continued but the capacity crowd was hearing pre-recorded loops as the band members made their way from the small stage at the back of the floor to the main stage just in time for the traditional “Auld Lang Syne.”
Thanks to Phish.net for providing some of the info used in this post. Originally published April 1, 2016.